Tag Archives: MFA

Why Writers Are Looked Down Upon

The other day someone asked me what I do for a living. I told them I work at a hospital, and then I hesitantly added that I’m also a graduate student. Why was I hesitant? Attending graduate school is an important step in many career paths. It can open a lot of doors and many people look up to individuals with advanced degrees.

However, I knew the next question the person was going to ask. “What graduate program are you in?”

4744982425_fe42abfa42_mWhen I answered, “I’m in a masters in writing program,” the reaction was almost uniform. It seems that most people look down on writers. I’ve even had a few family members ask what I’m doing to move forward with my “real” job. One person said to me, “Don’t good writers automatically know how to write?” As if every person in a writing program is incapable of writing well and therefore requires help.

Here’s a short list of authors who attended either an MA in writing program or an MFA program: Lauren Oliver, New York Times bestseller, Elizabeth Kostova, recipient of the Hopwood Award, Richard Ford, recipient of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and Jhumpa Lahiri, a Pulitzer Prize winner.

I’ve wondered why so many people look down on writing programs and writers in general. Unless an author is financially successful (J.K. Rowling, Anne Rice, Sylvia Plath, Stephen King, etc.), people expect writers to have ‘real’ professions, such as being a teacher, a lawyer, or an editor.

I think writers tend to get looked down upon because:

  1. Most people think they can write and publish a novel. There have been multiple instances where I’ve heard people say, “I’m going to write a novel someday,” “Writing isn’t that hard,” or, “Haven’t you been published yet?” They don’t realize how much time and energy go into writing a full length novel. Nor do they understand that getting an agent and then a book deal is like finding the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. (Getting an agent doesn’t solely depend on how well a book is written. Timing, what published books are popular at the moment, the mood of the agent, the query letter, connections, luck, etc. all play a role in whether or not a writer snags an agent.)
  2. Writers = artists. Like most forms of art, whether painting, music, or dancing, writing is seen as a hobby. It’s something to do in your spare time. It’s not a serious profession. Very few people can live off the money they make from writing. Very few people make any money from writing.
  3. Writing is a lonely road. Unlike many other types of jobs, writing is an individual process. This means that people don’t see how much time a writer dedicates to his story. It’s not only about writing those 80,000 words. There’s revisions and editing, getting people you trust to read your work and critique it (this stage is about the only one with outside interaction, until you query), and then there’s more editing.

There’s a prejudice against writing as a serious pursuit. However, writing takes a huge amount of dedication. Many people who begin a novel never finish, and out of those that do, many don’t go back and do the necessary revisions to make the novel publishable. Even if a novel is in its best condition and a writer has multiple people telling him to query because they loved his novel, there’s no guarantee that an agent will pick up the book. Writing takes resilience and one heck of a backbone.

Yet, though I know all of this, it still can hurt when I see peoples’ reactions to my chosen graduate degree. Yes, writing is most likely not going to set me up for life, but I don’t write because I’m looking for financial gain. I write because I love writing. I wouldn’t be happy if writing wasn’t in my life, so though non-writers have difficulty understanding why I’m pursuing a path that has few outward benefits, I’m going to continue doing it…and spend my free time hanging out with other writers.

Why do you think people tend to look down on writers?

(Photo courtesy of Gerrit Schirmer.)

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Getting a Leg Up: Improving Your Chances of Getting Published

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I’m always searching for ways to improve my chances of getting published. No matter what avenue you pursue getting published is a challenge. Many times it seems more about luck than talent or perseverance, though without staying power the chances of getting published are reduced to zero.

I’ve joined a critique group, taken creative writing classes, read several creative writing books, analyzed commercially successful novels, and am now working toward a Masters in Fiction Writing. All of this done in an effort to polish my work into a piece of writing an agent and then an editor will take on.

wanted lit agentBut even as I do all of this I know my chances are still slim. And before I go off on a bunny trail and start talking about how many poorly written novels end up being bestsellers (readability is one of the most important aspects of successful commercial fiction, not literary finesse), I would love to know what others are doing to improve their chances of getting published.

Currently, there’s the debate of whether or not to pursue an MFA (Masters in Fine Arts) in creative writing. Thousands of people apply each year to get into this program, while each year thousands snub the program. Real fast: an MFA is a terminal graduate degree, usually taking two to three years to complete, that offers students the opportunity to focus on their writing and grow as writers. Students participate in traditional style classes and workshops, where they read and critique other students’ work and where their work is read and critiqued.

One of the best attributes of the MFA is the opportunity to have your work read and critiqued. The program provides you with a community of writers that will give honest and thorough feedback on your writing. Sometimes when you have family or friends read your work, they’ll want to be encouraging, and so will be afraid of truly critiquing your novel. When you’re in a workshop setting, that is not the case. You will get straightforward and truthful feedback, whether you want to hear it or not.

An MFA program also teaches you to read with a critical eye. As I’ve delved deeper into the literary world, I’ve noticed my reading style changing. Whereas I used to read solely for pleasure, now I automatically dissect technique and literary elements within any work of fiction I read. On one hand this is great because I come away with a better understanding of the work I just read. On the other hand, I don’t enjoy books as much as I used to because I can better pick out the inconsistencies, plot holes, flat characters, etc. Though in order to improve as a writer, you have to learn what to avoid when writing, and one of the best ways to learn that is to become a critical reader.

As with all programs, there are downsides to the MFA. One, there’s the cost. Very few programs cover expenses. Most will cost students anywhere from $30,000 to $65,000. That’s a lot of money for a degree that provides little opportunity in the professional world!

There are no guarantees that you’ll get published. You’ll spend thousands of dollars and years of your life focusing on improving your work, and nothing may come of it. One of the most common pieces of advice writers hear is to not quit their day job.

Also, an MFA tends to be literary. If your focus is commercial, it’ll be challenging to get accepted into such a program. The literary world tends to snub the commercial world, while the commercial world doesn’t care all that much for the literary one. As stated earlier, one of the biggest proponents of having a commercially successful novel is readability. I’ve read many novels where the characters are two-dimensional and stereotypical, where the plot is nothing new, and where the writing is average at best, but I’ve come away liking the books because of their readability. (Literary fiction usually doesn’t promote readability to the extent of well-crafted writing.)writer

In the end, what you choose to do to improve your writing will be based on personal preferences, what you can afford, and what other successful writers in your genre have done.

I’m happy with my decision to work toward a Masters in Fiction Writing part time (this is different from an MFA) because it gave me a group of writers and professors – all published – who provide me with feedback for my work and gave me a group of people who understand what it’s like to pursue writing seriously and who know how difficult it is to be successful in the literary world.

No matter what it’s important to read and read widely. Reading books in your genre is vital, but so is reading books outside your genre. Join a critique group, and in doing so be open to (1) putting in the work and (2) being open to criticism. (I recently learned of a critique group where everyone wants their work read and critiqued, but very few want to read and critique anyone else’s work. Reciprocate people!) And when your novel is finished, revise, revise, revise. If you’re not great at editing, consider hiring a professional editor (if you have the funds to do so). Attend writer’s conferences. Immerse yourself in the literary world.

A great article I’ve read recently about the MFA and whether it will give you a leg up in the publishing world is “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.” It’s worth a look.

How do you improve your chances of getting published? What’s your stance on the MFA?

(Photos courtesy of The BookBaby Blog, The Graduate21, i am CAM Jr!)